Pain of dementia makes memories hard to hold on to

When I'm out and about, readers often tell me they enjoy this column most when I share memories that jog their memories.

So here's a story about our youngest child's recent wedding. On May 2, Jeff married Katherine Nomura at Germania Place, a historic Chicago building designed in 1888.

I'll forever count my blessings that my parents - Dad, now 92, and Mother, 87 - were present, thanks to my brother and his wife who helped them make the trip from Muncie, Indiana.

Jeff first met Katherine in sixth grade when their lockers stood next to each other at Hill Middle School, where they were on the same team and in many of the same classes. They're both 2001 graduates of Waubonsie Valley High School.

While they were casual acquaintances with shared experiences during their teen years, they didn't connect in a truly meaningful way until their 10th high school reunion after college when they were both working in Chicago. Recounting memories and old photos in yearbooks brought them together.

My husband Jim and I knew the first evening we spent with Jeff and Katherine that she was perfect for him. I remember thinking I hope he doesn't mess it up.

That first encounter was followed by subsequent dinners, then to meet Katherine's mother, always in hopes that on one of the occasions they'd announce future plans. Still, no pressure here!

They took their time until Christmas Eve 2013 to become engaged. And that Christmas we all were together with my folks in Muncie.

With fond memories of that family Christmas and the joy of looking forward to a wedding set for spring 2015, my mother often reminisced how happy she was for Jeff and Katherine. She repeatedly said she couldn't wait "that long" for their wedding.

She had begun showing signs of dementia about two years earlier. Though she still sounds chipper when she answers the phone and her heart and blood are in excellent condition, she repeats herself. She's often confused. She's aware something isn't right and that's part of the puzzle for all of us who love her.

She still has a sense of what's hers, such as the kitchen, but the wonderful cook hasn't prepared a meal for a couple years. My dad takes care of all grocery shopping and meal planning with newfound respect for every homemaker who manages a household and plans three healthful meals a day.

Yet, what's an enigma to all of us is our proud mother still takes care of her personal hygiene, cuts her own hair, puts on makeup and dresses without assistance.

When she sees recent photos of herself, she says, "That doesn't look like me."

The weekend after the wedding, Jim and I headed to Muncie for Mother's Day with photos, hopeful that whenever she sees how lovely she looked dancing with her grandson and great-grandson at the wedding, she'll remember how she and my dad had enjoyed dancing nearly every Saturday night for 50 years.

When we arrived, she suggested that we not sleep in my old bedroom because "the couple next door plays loud music all night long."

My dad gave me a reassuring, now familiar look to the contrary that it was OK - no need to question.

Over the past few years, we've learned not to dispute her recollection. And I've found myself researching the mind, moods and memories, reading the printed pamphlets and magazines my dad lends me - all the while trying to distinguish the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

I'm thinking, thinking, thinking. I'm thinking about the master control center of our bodies that continually receives information from our senses to help us control body functions and actions, mindful that the population is living longer.

I'm talking with peers in similar situations.

I'm trying to understand definitions and functions of brain parts such as branchlike dendrites, wondering how recall is transmitted. I'm learning about medical research.

I'm wiggling my toes more. Taking longer brisk walks outside in the fresh air. Eating more almonds and sunflower seeds. Closing my eyes to meditate. And pausing to study the details in dozens of framed photos throughout our home that date back to the 1930s.

Dementia is devastating for families as they watch loved ones succumb to memory loss and mood swings.

As my dad observes dementia, he describes it as a "horribly mean, damn disease."

"The only thing I can count on is your mother's moods are going to change," my dad said. "Like the weather, there will be a change, especially when she looks forward to visits from her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

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